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Sewing Sacred Linens a Sign of New Springtime


by Marianna Bartholomew

We celebrate the beginning of summer this week, but Catholics are called to live a “New Springtime” all year round.

In 2008, a priest in the capital city of Lincoln, Nebraska, told me he saw signs of that new “Springtime of the Faith” often spoken of by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

It all began at Blessed Sacrament Church when a group of junior high girls serving as lectors asked Father Brendan Kelly for a tour of the sacristy. He noticed how drawn the girls were to the sacred linens – the vestments and altar cloths. It got him thinking about how worn those linens were at his struggling mission church, and about his grandmother’s Order of Martha sewing materials.

The 13th of 14 children, Father Kelly was born in the southwest Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He remembers coming home from high school to see his mother opening an old box of his Grandmother’s. Together, they looked through patterns that his Grandma had used to make altar linens in her Order of Martha sewing circle.

Started by the Catholic Church Extension Society in 1911, Order of Martha groups sewed for missions in the U.S. The groups peaked in the 1960s with 6,000 members.

Brendan Kelly’s grandma had left one last purificator only partly sewn in her box. When the young man decided to be a priest, the youngest granddaughter on up to his mother passed the cloth around until the final seams were sewn. Then the cloth was used to wipe the chrism oil off Father Kelly’s hands during his ordination. The family followed tradition by burying this special cloth, called a manuturgium, with his mother when she died.

Fast forward some years, to Father Kelly serving at Blessed Sacrament Parish. When he gave that tour to the young lectors and saw their interest in sacred linens, he started praying about the situation. He realized that in hand sewing altar linens, women offered themselves at the altar, and that sewing itself is a contemplative act. He started talking about this theology of sewing, and girls and older women came to him saying, I don’t know how to sew, but can I learn?

In 2008, Father Kelly contacted Extension to tell about the first new Order of Martha Household to form in 30 years!

When staff at Extension heard the news, they were excited. By the middle of the 20th century, Order of Martha sewing circles had shipped nearly 400,000 sets of altar linens. But all that had come to an end with the use of polyester and ready-made sacred cloths in church. By 2005, only six known groups still operated.

Through Extension’s office moves, original sewing patterns had been lost, yet here was Father Kelly with his grandmother’s patterns. One editor at Extension Magazine wrote me in an email: “I’m very tickled about this Order of Martha household because I sew. My husband asked me a couple of weeks ago ‘if women still do that,’ and I had to scratch my head. I only know a few.”

Father Kelly said few of the girls and women coming forward in his parish had any sewing experience, but something was drawing them on to learn how.

During the first junior meeting, tornado sirens blew and the group ended by celebrating Mass with Father Kelly in the basement. At following meetings, members worked on simple purificators. When they graduated to sewing real linen, it was beautiful imported linen from Belgium, provided by Father and other donors through the altar society.

One sixth grade girl asked to embroider a little baptismal garment, saying she wanted to give back to God because He had given so much to her.

Another member had been sexually abused by family members as a child, and found healing in sewing the pure, white linens. She said dressing the altar with these linens, was like dressing Jesus.

Today, Ruth Push is vice-president of Blessed Sacrament’s Order of Martha. It’s been hard to keep members because things happen in people’s lives to draw them away. Also, Father Kelly now serves at another Nebraska church. But still, an average of seven women gather monthly to sew. The youngest of seven siblings, Ruth is a divorced mother of two grown boys and runs a day care from her home, yet she sews at least a seam a day. Sometimes that means taking a purificator to the laundromat and sewing while she processes her laundry.

She asks the Lord to accept each stitch as a prayer and has seen miracles happen, including one person becoming Catholic. Ruth has grown to a deep sense of knowing that Jesus really is present in the Eucharist. When her father died, she had the honor of hand sewing the corporal, purificator and hand towel used at his funeral.

Her Order of Martha group hand-sewed and donated altar linens for Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. Today, they’re finishing 23 corporals and 15 purificators for Blessed Sacrament.

When I first spoke with Father Kelly in 2008, it was fun because I, too, was noticing an interest in sewing and traditional handcrafts with my daughter and her friends. At one point, we had three generations of women working to turn the train of my wedding gown into a veil for a pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima. It was amazing to see a grandmother, two mothers and two 16-year-old daughters sewing seams together. We still meet during the summer for a knitting club in the park.

Father Kelly said this re-kindling of interest in the lost art of hand sewing, was a sign of something bigger. When I got off the phone after our first conversation, I literally did a little dance for joy. I had this sense of the Holy Spirit moving through hidden pockets of women across our nation, through their simple acts of hand sewing. Father told me, “These skills were lost for a time, but not entirely lost.”

Seeing active, modern women seeking quiet…settling in to the contemplative work of hand sewing vestments, really is a sign of a re-kindling – and a New Springtime in the Church.

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Article first appeared at and as a SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins podcast.


©2012 By Marianna BartholomewMarianna


Bartholomew is winner of six national Catholic Press Association Journalism Awards and Chicago’s 1993 Cardinal’s Communications Award for Professional Excellence. Her articles have appeared in EXTENSION Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic Digest and in Chicago’s Catholic New World and other diocesan newspapers across the nation. Former Managing Editor of Catholic home mission EXTENSION Magazine, Bartholomew has traveled to and reported on conditions in the poorest, most isolated pockets of our nation, from Louisiana’s Cajun communities and Appalachia’s hollows to Montana’s remote Indian missions. Blessed to be a wife and homeschooling mother of three, she now teaches in a homeschool cooperative, freelance writes from her Chicago area home, and is completing her first novel for young adults. She blogs at

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